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History: Navy pilot was last POW to leave North Vietnam

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

U.S. Navy pilot Al Agnew of Mullins wouldn’t leave his prisoner of war cell in Hanoi until it was his turn in 1973.

With one exception, American POWs had agreed not to accept any North Vietnamese offers of early release. “It was first in, first out,” Agnew told members of the Lowcountry Warbirds at their annual meeting Saturday at Litchfield Beach Fish House. The Warbirds are former military aviators who meet once a year, on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, to reminisce.

Because of the POWs unwritten rule about orderly release, Agnew was the last U.S. prisoner of war to leave North Vietnam.

His RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance jet was shot down on Dec. 28, 1972, prior to a bombing run of Hanoi ordered by President Richard Nixon. He left Hanoi March 29, 1973.

Agnew said he admires Nixon because he didn’t make idle threats like Lyndon Johnson. “Nixon ordered B-52s to North Vietnam and for the first time we really bombed Hanoi,” Agnew said. “By December of 1972, Nixon was fed up. He had been trying to get the peace thing going, trying to get the war to an end where we could leave. The POWs were a sticking point. Richard Nixon said our combat troops are not leaving Vietnam until all the POWs are out of the country. The North Vietnamese should have known not to mess with Nixon.”

Agnew’s last mission in Vietnam was to photograph the landscape prior to a bombing run in support of a large coordinated mission named “Linebacker 2” and get out of the way. His jet had no guns or bombs. “It looks good,” he said, “and takes great pictures. Our motto was ‘Unarmed and Unafraid’ and, well, that was half-right.”

Agnew said his threat warning instruments were quiet on the day of his last flight. “They were usually pretty well lit up,” he said, “but there was nothing. That was eerie. I pushed the test button because I thought it wasn’t working, and I kept pushing it. About that time all these MiG calls started happening. That’s why there were no flak or SAMs.”

Agnew and his navigator raced for home while his F-4 escort jets provided cover. “I just about had the coast under my nose,” he said, “when I lost control of the plane.” He said the stick of the Vigilante jet had a history of going “full forward” all by itself. Agnew’s jet began to cartwheel. He ejected but couldn’t find his navigator and assumed he was dead.

“I came almost straight down into a rice paddy,” Agnew said, “and was captured by farmers.” He was actually glad to be handed over to some uniformed militia and taken to a village, where he was allowed to wash off the mud from the rice paddy. After being subjected to a “charade” of execution, Agnew said he was loaded onto a Jeep and taken to Hanoi.

“The old prisoners thought they had been forgotten,” Agnew said. “Lyndon Johnson stopped the bombing. There was no news, nothing. They didn’t know what was going on. Other than torture, that was the worst part. When new guys started showing up in 1971, they knew the bombing had resumed and the war would soon be over.”

Agnew said he went into the prison camp at 172 pounds and came out at 138. He was fed cabbage soup with an occasional can of Russian fish, sweetened canned milk from Poland and something called sticky bread that they pretended to dislike for fear their captors would take it away.

“Our time was a walk in the park compared to what the old guys went through,” he said. “From 1964 to ’69, treatment of POWs was awful. Torture was the name of the game.”

Agnew said he knew the end was near when prisoners were being arranged in ship-out order.

“One demand of the POWs was that we come out in the order we were captured,” Agnew said. “There were no honorable early releases except for one: Navy Seaman Doug Hegdahl, who had memorized 300 names alphabetically by rank and could sing them to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

The North Vietnamese continued their little games, Agnew said, issuing new trousers, shirts and shoes and then taking them away, claiming there were problems with prisoners from Laos. “We considered it good sign,” he said, “when they gave us a beer.”

As the last POW out of Vietnam, Agnew was asked to make some remarks when he arrived at Clark Air Force Base. First, he said, he wanted a hot shower, clean clothes, two martinis, a steak and lobster and all the Stingers he could drink. He was denied and told he couldn’t leave the hospital.

The POWs were soon allowed anything they wanted to eat, including eggs, ice cream and steak. Nixon invited all 1,200 Vietnam POWs to the White House for a dinner. Tents were set up on the lawn, and the event remains the biggest reception in modern White House history. “It was quite an event,” Agnew said.

The average age of the Vietnam POW is 74 today, he said. There are 661 left.

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